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Positive Feedback ISSUE 1
june/july 2002


An Interview with Winston Ma

Part I: Ma’s Entry Into Fine Audio
by David W. Robinson & Rick Gardner

(In August of 2000, PF Online’s Rick Gardner and David W. Robinson had a long and delightful interview with our good friend, Winston Ma, of First Impression Music. Part I appeared in Positive Feedback Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 2; we are including it here for continuity, since Part II will be published soon here on PF Online.)

Winston Ma at the doorway to his
magnificent listening room

Robinson: I’m meeting with Winston Ma of First Impression Music and Rick Gardner of Positive Feedback Magazine here at Winston’s remarkable listening room.

Ma: It is my privilege and honor to have you two gentlemen here for the sharing of views.

Gardner I’ll be the booming voice in the background! I’m very glad to be here, and am looking forward to our conversation.

Robinson: I thought that we would start out by exploring the creative process of how you went about building the most extraordinary listening room that I’ve ever seen, Winston. I thought that it would be good for our readers to come to know how you became involved in audio. Obviously, you’ve been doing audio for quite a while…

Ma: Yes. To answer your first question in a short way, the music room is, in fact, not a sudden idea. It is my dream project that I’ve had for many years. All along, I have had a vision that, in order to have the best reproduction of music, I needed to have a total system. We will talk about what a total system is later on.

The listening room is a project primarily accomplished after I had settled here (in the Seattle area) on a permanent basis. How I decided to do a project of this kind may have come from the early days of my childhood. I don’t know why; I don’t think that any members of my family—they all like music—pursued music with the passion and the emphasis and the force that I have. It seems like I’m the only one in the family who has done this.

I still remember that when I was a child, perhaps at the age of 10, that the love of music was very strong. At the time, just after the Second World War, everyone was trying to emerge from the ruins. Everyone was so poor; nobody could afford to have high-class audio. We could only afford to listen to cabled radio networks. I used to go to a street corner where there was a teahouse, and we would sit there and listen to the radio. Sometimes they would turn on the English channel on Chinese radio, and from time to time we would hear music, and I loved it! I certainly did not know the name of the music, I did not know the composer—I just liked the music. I don’t think I have a very good memory generally, but I do have an extraordinary ability to remember the melody of a particular song. The songs I heard I remember to this time. That gave me a very good basic training.

Robinson: About what time was this?

Ma: It was about…the mid-‘40s.

Robinson: So you’re unique in your family? No one else is an audiophile?

Ma: I think so. To a certain degree they love (music and audio), but they are more passive when they do this. For me, I just want to go very deep into it. I have my particular preferences—for this recording, for this song—which I would like to be done in a particular manner. But with the constraints in my background and my training, I was not able to do this in my years as a teenager.

But I started to contribute articles in my early twenties. I did not have any training in music or audio; it just came like that. I had a particular idea about a performance, or the recording itself, (and I would write.)

Robinson: Do you remember what the first magazine that you wrote for was?

Ma: Let’s go a little bit further first. I started contributing articles on my daily life, my experience in life, my observations of human affairs, at the age of eleven. I sent these to magazine, to the newspapers, because this helped to augment my pocket money. Whenever my article was accepted by a newspaper, I was paid one dollar! (Laughter)

Gardner You made more than we do putting together Positive Feedback!

Robinson: You wish you made a dollar, Rick!

Gardner I wish!

Ma: One dollar was sufficient for my spending for one week as a little boy. So, every week, I wrote, and did it continuously for several years.

Gardner So you were a professional writer long before you began to write about audio.

Ma: You could say that…

Gardner: Hey, if you get money for it, you’re a pro!

PF Online’s Rick Gardner in discussion
with Winston Ma

Ma: I went to school very late, at the age of six or seven I think, because of the war. I still remember when I wrote my first page of Chinese characters with brushes, nobody taught me. I had simply observed the teacher, and saw how to hold the brush. I did my first page with all the ability that I had. I was brought to the front of the class when I submitted it and was asked by the teacher, "Why did you have your father do this for you?" (Laughter) "I’m sorry," I said, "I will try to do this better." "No!" they said, "This piece is so good that it should not be coming from your hand." I said, "No, I did it!" Because, to be quite frank, my father was illiterate. So, in school I was very, very good in Chinese writing, and also very good in literature. With this I could contribute articles, and the newspaper always accepted them. I continued with this until I was 18, when I was too busy to continue submitting them.

After schooling, I remember that my first article was done when I was the age of 23, when I bought an RCA LP of Alpine Symphony. This was recorded by Kenneth Wilkinson. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out later that Wilkinson had recorded it. That recording was done in the U.K. I sent this in to a magazine named Ming Pao. I wrote about how I felt when I listened to the music. It seemed like I was there in the —the snow, and the kind of overwhelming…grandeur of nature. I said that at the climax of the symphony you could hear the trombones—it was so good! I wrote something like that…

Gardner When you listened to this symphony, Winston, do you remember what it was being reproduced on?

Ma: This would have been in 1959 or 1960. This would have been a tube amplifier. The speaker was home-built…

Gardner (Laughing) So you were a DIY person way back then—a triple threat!

Winston Ma’s peaceful garden and listening room;
the sunroom is to the right.

Ma: Yes! I built my first Wharfdale speakers at the age of 18. With a 15" triangular enclosure. Anyway, as a result of my review of this recording, the distributor, who somehow got my telephone number, contacted me and told me, "You know, as a result of your article, we have sold 7,000 copies of this LP, which we have never before achieved! This is crazy!" So as a result of this, I was given LPs from time to time to listen to. (As time went on) I became more choosey…

Gardner So you were a music reviewer..?

Ma: Yes. You know, as we talk so many memories are coming out. I did find something really very good in writing about recordings. Later on, I discovered that I should collect and keep all these articles for future reference. I have a vision that when I retire, I would like to publish a set of books incorporating all these articles—because, perhaps I could write better when I was young. Now, I am too old.

Many years later, when I incorporated Golden String, and I got to know some customers, they brought some of my articles, which I published many years ago. They kept them, and I was so glad; I asked them if I might make a copy, so that I might have one!

I still remember the three of my best articles of my life. One was about the Linn LP-12. The other was about the Thorens 124 turntable. The third one was about the SME tonearm.

Gardner: Do you remember the first piece of equipment that you wrote about formally?

Ma: I must confess that I do not. I wrote about some amplifiers, some speakers…  (many things.)

Gardner: One of the reasons why I ask is that you were writing about music in a general magazine. It’s a big jump to audio magazines…

Ma: Later on I wrote in all audio magazines (there), and also I wrote in The Voice of America. I was given the highest pay. Later on, when I started my own company, I quit writing about equipment. I still wrote about music, but I quit writing about equipment, because of complications, and questions about my integrity…

Gardner: …   conflict of interest…

Ma: Yes, conflict of interest.

Gardner: Let me follow up with this question: Do you remember writing for a specific audio magazine that was devoted to audio equipment?

Ma: As I said, the first magazine that I wrote for was Ming Pao; it was a weekly. They had a special column that was dedicated to hi-fi or music. It was three or four pages of their thick magazine. I was invited by the editor of that column, who happened to become my very good friend, and who later on became a very famous cartoonist—he died of cancer at the very young age of 35—he "discovered" me. Otherwise, I might not have had the interest or encouragement or the courage to knock on the door of the magazines and tell them, "I can write; give me the chance to write!"

He went to my home to listen to my system. He listened to my way of talking about to set up the best SME tonearm. And why my loudspeakers were put in the two corners instead of in the front. I told him, "This is the way I feel. And look! The whole soundstage is there! You don’t hear the speaker; this is the actual way it sounds!" And everybody said, "Your AR-3’s sound so much better than anyone else’s place!" They wanted to borrow them and try them out in their own homes. And they found they didn’t have the same result! (Laughter)

Robinson: "It’s not the turntable!"

Ma: I remember an engineer came to listen to my AR-3’s, and he said, "How come the sound of your AR’s is better than what we get in the AR facilities?" And it was because I modified them; I modified it because I felt that the AR was bass-heavy, and I felt that this was a way of putting the proper upper balance in. The three drivers were not 100% (exactly aligned.) So I tried to fix this, to align it, and I tried and I tried, and finally I had the image in focus. I also tried to change the wiring inside. And I tell you, I was swamped! I tried to use better wires. This will sound terrible, but I had to pick them up out of the dustbins—but this was a good experience.

When you modify something, you will get hooked. It will be a different sound; in most cases, worse. Because the designer should know better than you. Unless you have something special, and then you may come up with a sound that you prefer. It may be better.

Gardner: So at 23 you were writing professionally, you were building speakers, you were tweaking and re-designing audio equipment. At that time, did you think to make your future living in music, or ..?

Ma: I was young, and I met my wife, we fell in love, and we got married at the age of 24. And then we had three kids.

Gardner: Ah!

Ma: So I had the family burden; I had to work. At the time I had no idea at all that I would become an "audio man." I just worked for years as a teacher. Later on, I found that I’m interested in communicating with people with kids. But I felt that I had a lot of ideas that I could not execute as a teacher. So I changed my job to be a government worker. My wife said that I could do whatever I wanted provided that the kids can go to the university, and all the bills are paid for, and there is no debt. (Chuckling from Gardner) You can do whatever you like! (Laughter)

Gardner: That’s the trick, isn’t it?!

Ma: And I was able to do that, (but only later.) I have been in the audio business only a relatively short time. There are people who say, "Oh, Winston has been in the audio business for many decades!" I have had the love of music for many decades. But I have been in the audio business for less time than many other of the established audio businesses.

Robinson: When did you make the transition (to full time audio), then—what year was it?

Ma: In 1980. I started off very humbly, with a desk, a part-time person in the foyer, and I didn’t have much that I (carried). So what I represented as an audio company was a piece of (equipment) that gave you better sound. So I marketed this, and people believed it, and I got good business out of that. Later on, (I came to understand) my weaknesses, and my forte. My forte is music and LPs, and recordings, so I was the first one who created that kind of trend, of buying Japanese pressings—JVC, etc. I sold so many. And then I tried to negotiate with record companies to become their exclusive distributor of particular recordings. I discovered Cantate Domino (and others.)

The first audio equipment that I represented formally was Harman. I used to buy Hafler from a very established company for many years. This was from Albert Chang; I like him very much. He is a gentleman, he is very knowledgeable. He is to this day the best audio man in Hong Kong, I think. David Hafler came to Hong Kong and certainly he met David Chang. He also came to my very shabby store. (Laughter) He looked at me and said, "You are Winston Ma?" I said "Yes." We talked, and he listened to me for about half an hour. Then he said, "OK, I’ll take you, instead of a bigger company, because you will pay attention to my products instead of having 1,001 brands of equipment."

Gardner: Were you using David (Hafler’s) equipment in your home system at the time? This was 1988, right?

Ma: 1981 or 1982. After that he came to Hong Kong, and I would travel to the U.S.A. I think we became friends. We had some conversations. At that time he was so rich that he was always at the beach or at the office on the telephone…

  I also met Bob Fulton, of Fulton Audio. Among all audiophile engineers in the world, and among all so-called audio gadgets for tweaking systems, Bob Fulton was the number one man—and I think he’s still the number one man, though he died some ten years ago. He first came up with the "crazy" audiophile cable, so thick, so hard, but it sounded so good. And nobody believed it. And he came up with audiophile interconnect, and with (a product) for the turntable. Later on he came up with small cables (for phono cartridges.) So he was the first high-end audiophile (cable) man at that time. Because most didn’t believe that cable makes a difference. Even David Hafler—I checked with David and said, "This is Fulton cable." He said, "All cable is the same! As long as you get good connections." said, "No, this is the best!" He said, "No…  " I still remember this!

Gardner: I’m so glad that we’ve resolved this, too! Now everyone is in agreement nowadays…   (Chuckles)

Ma: David Hafler himself! He said "No, I did not find any differences. As long as (the cable) is of acceptable quality." I’m sorry (that he thought that,) but David is a great engineer, he has done a lot for audio. But the first guy who expressed insight on this was Robert Fulton. He was one of the men that I respected very much.

Gardner: From an earlier conversation that we had, you mentioned something that I wanted to go back to. You had a nickname in your writing days…

Ma: Yes. You know, I have interviewed many (audio people over the years.) Eventually, I was interviewed quite frequently by magazine editors or on the radio. I was asked to produce a couple of TV shows on high-end audio and video. I tried to talk honestly and modestly about these things, and not do any bullshitting. (Robinson chuckles) (I tried to make sure that) everything had a solid scientific and technical background, and not just our imagination, because I had to do some service for the (audio) industry.

So, in one of the interviews, four or five interviews—long interviews—with Mr. Chang well known in as an editor, and also for) the popular series, "Beautiful Music," he said, "You don’t write things in a terrible way; your writing is so beautiful." He started calling me "the audio poet."

Gardner: Yes, that’s what I wanted to hear!

Ma: He’s very experienced. He drove every bit of this material out of my brain, all this material, which was put in the magazine for (many years.)

I have other nicknames too. I was also called "Mr. Hi-Fi"…

Gardner: David and I have nicknames too, butwe can’t repeat them! (Much Laughter)

Ma: I feel grateful, because people do treat me well. I have a lot of friends, and some have become very good friends. If you are sincere with others, and give good advice, and you are not always talking about money, then people will like you and treat you as a friend. Instead of (everything being) commercial…

So when people ask me "how should I improve (my system); what equipment should I change?"…20% of the time, they don’t need to change anything. When I visit a home, many times I simply work with what is there. Many times, the owner was a happier man when I left.

Robinson: It’s clear that by the 1980’s your love of music had become fused with your love of audio equipment itself.

Ma: Not quite, because you can’t break it such parts. Certainly, without music I wouldn’t have tried to pursue my affection for the reproduction of music that hinges on the music equipment. As I said, I wrote articles (like the one I did with) 13 points on how to improve your LP-12. And I wrote about the Thorens 124, about the flutter of the motor. I had a very simple suggestion for readers, to use a rubber band at the juncture of the motor so that the top would not slip away. It works! I did it very playfully; at that time the Thorens 124 was a standard in the market. And then I got a letter—a serious letter—from the distributor, and later a very serious letter from Thorens in Germany. Wow! I was shocked! At that time I was a young chap. And they said, "You’re talking about our design and engineering. I respect you as a reviewer, however you did not give (any specifications about your modification, nor warn your readers that) if they do as you suggested they will void their warranty as an implication. However, I must write to thank you; we also noticed this defect. In our new production this kind of improvement has been incorporated into our new model." (Laughter)

Gardner: You have used the term "perfection" in some of our conversations, and I’ve sensed that as we’ve talked with you, as we’ve toured your listening room and your garden, and this beautiful sunroom that serves as an anteroom to the listening room proper, that there’s more to this than music, there’s more to it than audio equipment. That there’s an underlying aesthetic, an underlying search for perfection, and I thought it was interesting that you use that term, that it wasn’t just a love of audio or music; that those things combine into something more than just that.

Ma: Yes, yes, I can’t argue with what you say, because we are human, and all the subtleties of the environment have certain effects on your thinking and your sensation of things, including music. And so, I think this is the way I should do whatever I can do (to achieve perfection in the listening room.) I haven’t (accomplished this yet.) I should have been able to do it earlier, but unless a so-called perfection—well, "perfection" is my term for it; to others it may be inadequate, but I have my own way, and this is the way I do it. Within my ability, and in terms of my knowledge, skills, experience, and financial means.

Robinson: Yes, we cannot escape the constraints of the budgets that we have, which is something I would like for lovers of audio to understand is that many things can be done; that one does not have to be Paul Allen to achieve a level of excellence. I’ve always defined "excellence" in relative terms. Excellence is doing the very best that you can with what you have.

Ma: Yes! This is very important, and very true. I hope that I always remember that. A man can be very rich and happy, even if in actual fact, he isn’t that rich. A man can be very poor and have a very poor life even if he’s a very wealthy millionaire. It all depends on his vision and perception in life. Does he take time to appreciate nature? I would say that, in the broadest sense, music is also nature. We are a part of nature.

Robinson: I’m very curious; at what point in all of your striving, in all of your desire for excellence, for perfection, for the beauty of music—at what point did the idea of a listening room being to enter your thinking?

Ma: Oh, very, very early. As early as my twenties. But because of my financial constraints, and also because Hong Kong is such a very small place—in Hong Kong, 99% of the people listen to music in the sitting room or family room—the constraints are obvious. In terms of space, in terms of loudness, in terms of placement; you have the TV there, the kids do their homework there. Certainly at the time I dreamed of having a room dedicated for myself; over the years, I thought more about it. I naturally started to notice (rooms), and also started reading anything about music rooms. And I found that there is not much material in magazines that I found to be useful. Certainly they would have reports from time to time about listening rooms built by rich guys. (Many of them are built like) concert halls; the front end is like a stage, like a concert hall stage. But there aren’t many specialized books about building music rooms; there are many books about building concert halls and recording studios, but very few about music rooms. So references are limited.

Winston relaxing at his desk in his listening room.

(Part II of our interview with Winston Ma, and photographs of his listening room, will appear in PF Online shortly—stay tuned!)